Using Aquinas to Understand Lonergan on the Meaning of Transcendental Laws

Br. Dunstan Robidoux, OSB


In speaking about human cognitive acts and especially about human acts of understanding, instead of speaking about laws of nature and the intelligibility that these laws have, Lonergan prefers to speak about another kind of meaning or, in other words, about another kind of law. A real distinction should be drawn between laws of nature which specify what a given thing can do and what is cannot do and what Lonergan refers to as “transcendental laws”: laws which account for a species of freedom which belongs to human acts of understanding but which does not belong to other created human acts. Cf. Lonergan, The Triune God: Systematics, p. 175. Human reasoning and understanding is not only intelligible. It is also intelligent. It functions as a source of intelligibility not only by discovering laws which already exist but also by functioning, to some extent, as a source or as an originator of law. It brings laws into being through operations that are eminently rational.

This transcendental desire functions as an inner first principle (an inner law) which governs all subsequent cognitive operations. Initially, this transcendental desire emerges in a completely spontaneous way in the lives of human beings. However, as this same desire moves to help create conditions which can move a potential knower toward later possible receptions of understanding, the initial experience of spontaneity which is given in this transcendental desire is supplanted by a second kind of experience which refers to experiences of rationality that are not properly understood if they are simply viewed as spontaneous.

In this context thus, in the context of rationality or, more properly, within experiences of intellectual or rational consciousness, a different kind of freedom is thus experienced by us as human beings. Instead of a freedom which refers to acts which exist because a given thing possesses a certain kind of nature or inner principle of intelligibility (a freedom which is limited because it is determined by a nature or inner principle of intelligibility which a given thing has), a second kind of freedom is experienced which refers to an order of self-constitution which exists within rational human activity as one kind of intellectual act leads to or emerges from another species of intellectual act. A sovereign kind of freedom makes its presence felt when, as human beings, we engage in a creativity which exists within ourselves and which is endemic in our own acts of understanding: a creativity that transcends all other known categories and laws to construct new categories and determine new laws. But, how is this order of self-constitution to be explained? How is its reasonableness to be understood? The transcendental freedom which exists within human understanding is not to be understood as a source of chaos or as a begetter of disorder.

Turning now to what Aquinas has to say in the Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 71, a. 6, ad 4, Aquinas refers to natural law as a species of law which derives from a higher law which is to be identified as God’s eternal law but which also exists, in a secondary way, in laws which are not eternal but which have somehow been created by us in our acts of understanding and judgment. These laws exist in the “natural judgment of human reason” (in naturali iudicatorio rationis humanae). Natural laws exist implicitly within the structure of our human reasoning and so they can be found there if one tries to understand the form or the intelligibility of our human reason. One understands the normativity or the lawfulness of human understanding in its operations and effects if one accordingly attends to the inclinations and ordinations that are most proper to human living and which distinguish human life from the existence and life of other beings. Cf. Summa Theologiae, q. 91, a. 6. Laws exist within created or subordinate things to the degree that these same things are naturally or normally inclined to abide by a higher set of laws which account for the existence and the life of these lesser things. The proper inclinations or ordinations of things reveal not only higher laws to which these things are subject but, most importantly for us, they also reveal these same laws as they also exist within these things as constitutive principles. The participation of a thing in a higher reality which functions as a source or point of origin for law turns the participant (particeps) into an analogous or secondary source of law. And so, as one attends to those special inclinations which distinguish human beings from any other kind of things, one discovers laws which exist within those inclinations: laws that are proper to the created human condition. One discovers laws which are constitutive of human cognition and, at the same time, within these same laws, one discovers laws which are constitutive of divine understanding and knowing.

In knowing about these laws (as partial as one’s understanding may be), one begins to understand a bit more about the difference which should exist between intelligibility, on the one hand, and intelligence, on the other hand. As a given, as something which had been received by something else, intelligibility presents itself as a passive determination. The natures of things exist as intelligibilities.  But, with respect to intelligence, as we think about it, we find that intelligence is essentially active. It is determinative. It functions as a determinating principle. It is a cause of intelligibility in other things in a way which also means that it is also a cause of intelligibility in itself through the operations which it performs. As intelligent operations construct or form a pattern of acts among themselves, an inherent intelligibility is revealed within these acts. An intelligibility is revealed which we can possibly also come to know. And so, for these reasons, it can be properly said about intelligence that intelligence forms or constitutes itself according to laws that are best referred to as transcendental laws which are to be distinguished from the intelligibility of a nature which functions as a principle of limitation. Intelligence in act determines what it does at any given time through decisions which are made because rationally it functions or operates on the basis of an inner principle which governs all of its subsequent operations: an inner principle which Lonergan refers to as a “transcendental desire”: a transcendental desire which can be used as a point of reference for the existence of transcendental laws that are to be identified with the generative laws of human cognition and understanding. Cf. Lonergan, The Triune God: Systematics, p. 175. A cognitional factor helps to explain why human understanding is characterized by a form of transcendence which is best referred to in terms which speak about self-transcendence. But, for a fuller explanation which best shifts into a metaphysical understanding of things that allows one to speak about a form of indwelling which exists within created human acts of understanding. Through the principle of rationality or reasonableness, one can say that higher laws exist within created acts of human understanding: higher laws which serve as a point of departure for moving toward new achievements of human meaning (achievements that are not restricted to current human achievements as these may exist in human life, society, and culture).

Recall a point that Aquinas makes in the Summa Theologiae, 1a2ae, q. 66, a. 5, ad 4. The wise man judges between which first principles should be proved and what should not be proved in any given discipline or science and the wise man also judges which principles should be used as a basis from which to construct an ordering of variables in any given science or discipline.

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